Khmer Glazed Terracotta Sphinx

SKU LO.1273
Circa

1200 AD to 1400 AD

Dimensions

13.50″ (34.3cm) high x 10″ (25.4cm) wide

Medium

Glazed Terracotta

Origin

Cambodia

Gallery Location

UK


 

This exceptionally rare ceramic was produced during the Khmer period in Cambodia. Known mainly for the staggering city of Angkor, the Khmer empire covered much of SE Asia between the 9th and 15th centuries AD, and was a trading hub for much of the surrounding are. The finds made from this dynamic period of Asian history have been highly informative as to the cultural and religious characteristics of Khmer society, and this is an astonishing example of their sculptural traditions. Whilst the bronze and stone sculptures of this civilisation have been well-studied, ceramic wares have only recently begun to attract attention. Large kilns have been discovered in the Mount Kulen and Roluos areas, where the necessary raw materials – clay, sand, rock and water – are in plentiful supply. The majority of surviving works, such as storage vessels, are utilitarian in function. Although zoomorphic vessels in the form of turtles, frogs and elephants are known, this piece was clearly not designed to hold liquid. It must therefore have had a ceremonial or ritualistic function of some importance.

The earliest known representations of the sphinx, a mythological creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man, come from Egypt during the Old Kingdom period. The idea also occurs in ancient Greece where wings were often added to the lion’s body. The motif was equally popular in South-East Asia, although scholars have debated whether it arose here independently or was transmitted via the Hellenistic kingdoms of Central Asia. A variety of names are used to describe this beast but the most popular one is the Indian term, ‘purushamriga.’ It was believed to have apotropaic powers and was placed in temples and palaces to ward off evil spirits. Unlike other areas of the world where sphinxes were produced, Southern Asian sphinxes are still used in the modern day.

The sphinx is modelled in an alert, tense pose, with head raised and back legs bunched as if in preparation. The body is highly muscular and powerful, decorated with flanges of ceramic – themselves decorated with floral patterns – that delineate the limbs and haunches. The tail is plain with an ornate tip, and curls backwards along its spine, forming an ‘S’ shape when viewed in profile. The detailing is extremely well done, from the superficial decoration to the forming of the grinning face to the toes with their individual claws. The face displays a slightly supercilious expression, with high, arched eyebrows, piercing eyes and a smile that slightly bunches the cheeks. The headwear is exceptionally elaborate, with a raised rim, circular motifs around the perimeter and a three-tier “tower” in the centre; it also wears leaf-shaped earrings that protrude from under the headwear. The circular motifs are also impressed into the necklace, along with larger scrollwork patterns and foliate designs. The broad forehead and the shape of the diadem recall the style of bronze Khmer statues that are more widely known.

Although there has been some restoration, especially to the front legs, the piece is in exceptional condition considering the fragility of its material. The delicate blue/green glaze appears in a myriad of different shades. The tail is accentuated by a brown glaze that is typical of Khmer ceramics in this period. The facial expression is difficult to read but appears to be benevolent. This is a unique opportunity to acquire an extremely rare masterpiece which offers a major insight into Khmer civilisation.

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